The Canary And Other Tales Of Martial Law by Marek Nowakowski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"Must be two 'realities': one on the telly, the other in real life. It's unbearable. Here I am: I've just come away from 'life', I sit down in front of the telly, and a different world opens up before my eyes."
December 13, 1981. The imposition of martial law in Poland and the crushing of Solidarity movement. The first weeks and months of the "state of war" - as the martial law was called by the government - were deeply traumatic for virtually entire Polish society whose hopes for freedom from Soviet-influenced ideology have been dealt a devastating blow. Marek Nowakowski's collection of stories The Canary and Other Tales of Martial Law (1982) was written during these horrible first months of the government's war on society.
I lived in Poland during the entire year of martial law: Nowakowski's stories accurately portray the anger, the feeling of total defeat, the hopelessness, and the deep personal pain that Polish people were suffering at the time. Thousands of Solidarity activists were detained, riot police were controlling the crowds, many striking workers were killed, and military patrols were roaming the streets all over the country. In the beginning weeks the entire telephone system in the country was disabled - later the phone calls were possible but monitored - and only one TV channel and one radio station were available. The curfew was strictly enforced.
The pieces in Nowakowski's collection are snapshots of the grim reality, vignettes that reflect the many aspects of life under the state of war; people were in fact comparing the period to the times of German occupation of Poland during World War II. The scenes and sketches combine to form a picture of a defeated nation. Everyone who lived in the country at that time participated in or at least witnessed many situations shown by the author. Police harass elderly people who have lined up in front of a butcher's store well before 6 a.m. - the curfew still in force - because meat delivery was promised. Ordinary people, often the whole families, distribute underground bulletins in which the truth is told rather than the "alternative truth" one can see on the telly. Employees in all sorts of places - offices, schools, factories - are required to undergo a "verification" process: they may be fired just for having dissenting political views.
Two stories stand out: in one a student is forced to betray his friend so that he himself is not arrested, in the other one a father and a teenage son who have never had any meaningful conversation suddenly find out they share the hate for the common enemy - the government. But while the stories are truthful, honest, and totally realistic, I am unable to agree that they are well written, and the matter is certainly not with the translation. This is my first book by the author, a noted Polish writer in the so-called "little realism" genre, so I can't say whether it is the author's general manner of writing or whether the haste in composing this book while the suffering of the nation was the most acute is at fault. In many of the snapshots the author constructs a clever metaphor, one that will be quite obvious to even a less-than-thorough reader, and then he spoils the effort by explaining the metaphor "in simpler words."
Overall it is a worthy read, for historical and sociological reasons, and it provides food for thought: 35 years later one might venture an observation that it might be easier to survive very hard times in a society where 95% of people are of one mind than to live in better circumstances but where the society if bitterly divided about 50-50%.
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